Social justice defined the life of John Mihevc

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  • January 8, 2015

TORONTO - John Mihevc, a sojourner in Africa, a pioneer in ecumenical social justice work, teacher and writer, has died at the age of 56.

Throat cancer that had kept Mr. Mihevc away from his work with the national ecumenical justice organization KAIROS since 2011 metastasized and eventually ended Mr. Mihevc’s life Dec. 21. He leaves his wife Rebecca and daughters Stella and Sophie.

Mr. Mihevc was born in 1958, 10 years after the Mihevcs arrived in Canada as Slovenian refugees. He grew up in Toronto’s workingclass Fairbank neighbourhood and became one of two Mihevc brothers to earn a PhD in theology from Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College. His brother Joe, who taught ethics at the University of Toronto, eventually made his career in municipal politics. John found himself more at home behind the scenes, organizing, writing and editing on behalf of social justice.

Mr. Mihevc’s Catholic upbringing and intellectual drive brought him to graduate school, led him to teach at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., and then teaching school in Botswana. This African experience launched him into a lifetime of work on behalf of Africa. He volunteered and later landed a job with the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa as its economic justice coordinator.

“His was a total commitment,” Joe Mihevc told The Catholic Register. “It was a choice.”

Rather than a more comfortable academic career, Mr. Mihevc stuck with social justice work. Having seen injustice first hand in the apartheid era of South Africa, when Botswana was host to waves of political refugees, his conscience wouldn’t allow him a comfortable role as a mere observer.

He stuck with the inter-church coalitions through the years as it evolved into KAIROS — an ecumenical coalition supported by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Canadian Religious Conference and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops along with eight other national churches in Canada.

Mr. Mihevc quickly saw the importance of economics to understanding how and why some nations and some people are kept poor. In the 1990s he toured the country conducting faith workshops and organizing people to protest the 1995 G7 summit in Halifax. That eventually led to the 1997 book Toward a Moral Economy: Responses to Poverty in the North and South.

As the Great Jubilee of 2000 rolled around, Mr. Mihevc turned his attention to the debts owed by poor African countries to the World Bank and conditions imposed on them by the International Monetary Fund. The campaign persuaded then Prime Minister Paul Martin to cancel 100 per cent of poor country debts owed to the Export Development Corporation and the Canadian Wheat Board. Much of the campaign rested on arguments Mr. Mihevc made in his 1996 book The Market Tells Them So: The World Bank and Economic Fundamentalism in Africa.

As time went on, Mr. Mihevc saw the connection between economics and the environmental crisis. He campaigned on economic and environmental sustainability as the world’s leaders arrived in Toronto for the 2010 G20 summit.

But Mr. Mihevc never wanted to take over. He brought speakers from Africa and Latin America so they could speak for themselves to Parliament in Ottawa and to the Canadian media.

“His whole life was preparation for or expression of this deep vocation to ecumenical justice,” said KAIROS executive director Jennifer Henry.

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